UK charities refocus debate on aid quality

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (center left) visits an aid distribution center in Gloucestershire. A bill to protect the country's commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GNI on aid is expected to receive royal assent and become law in the next few weeks. Photo by: Paul Shaw / Crown Copyright 

With the foreign aid bill passing its final parliamentary hurdle Monday, U.K. aid groups are now turning the conversation to the quality of the government’s aid spending.

As the bill is now on course to receive royal assent and become law in the next few weeks, discussions on where the United Kingdom should focus its foreign assistance on — and why — and how aid will be delivered are expected to heat up.

“The point of this legislation is to fix the relative quantity and then allow the debate to move on to quality,” Dominic Haslam, Sightsavers’ director of policy and program strategy, told Devex. “Very few people question whether the U.K. should provide support in a humanitarian crisis, but there is more debate over, for instance, funding middle-income countries which have vast populations of people on very low incomes.”

Most members of the U.K. aid community share Haslam’s views.

For Angela Salt, executive director of Voluntary Services Overseas U.K., the bill’s passage means “we can focus the discussions on how the money is spent, helping countries to plan their economies better for the future, impacting on the quality of hospitals, schools and other key public services.”

The United Kingdom has received praise for setting a number of development milestones, including for leading efforts on aid transparency. But its aid program has also been met with criticisms, particularly over the lack of clear guidance despite overly ambitious expectations and objectives.

So far this year, aid watchdog Independent Commission for Aid Impact has given the U.K. Department for International Development two consecutive amber-red ratings — the second worst rating in the watchdog’s system — first on how scaled up funding to fragile states has not translated to increased impact, and then on how its security and justice programs are making little difference on the beneficiaries.

The aid agency has also recently been questioned by members of Parliament over its investments in Ebola-affected countries in West Africa like Sierra Leone, on why it hasn’t invested enough to strengthen these countries’ health systems. Many argue the current outbreak could have been prevented or its impact reduced had the aid community exerted more effort in strengthening the affected countries’ health systems, like training doctors and putting in measures for them to stay instead of immigrating to richer countries.

Haslam hopes that as the debate on aid quality moves forward, people would better understand the links between humanitarian and development expenditure.

“The reason Ebola doesn’t happen in the Netherlands, Belgium and France in the way it is happening in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia is because those countries have strong health systems capable of preventing and treating such outbreaks. So what support should the U.K. be providing to those health systems to prevent having to run emergency appeals for similar outbreaks in 20 years' time?” he said.

Salt meanwhile argued that the debate should also touch on development policies.

“We know that aid alone is not the answer,” the VSO official said. “We need development policies which go beyond aid and recognize the importance of trade, tax, technology transfer [and others].”

Predictability, not just quantity

Despite criticism from some parts of the international development community that believe hewing to an aid target is irrelevant and outdated, U.K. aid groups lobbied hard to legislate the 0.7 percent aid commitment to ensure Britain would continue to disburse significant, predictable amounts of official development assistance for the years to come.

“[The bill] isn’t about more money but the security of that money year after year,” Concern Worldwide U.K.’s Executive Director Rose Caldwell noted.

Having predictable aid, according to Simon Kirkland, Christian Aid’s U.K. parliamentary and political adviser, will help Britain’s aid partners plan their aid work more effectively.

“Many really effective sources of aid, such as providing support for developing countries to broaden their tax bases, need good planning and long-term commitment, which will be helped by this very welcome bill,” he said.

The United Kingdom set another milestone with the passage of the foreign aid bill. Which pressing development challenge — finance or otherwise — should it next exert its leadership?

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.